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Month: December 2013 Page 1 of 3

King Saud University: A Journey to Saudi Arabia Pt. 4

Higher education is a very important part of a country and culture’s development. Trained professionals and intellectuals are necessary to accomplish the challenges that come with building, expanding, and modernizing a country. The Saudis recognize this, and have invested huge sums of money into developing the Saudi educational system as a result. We were given the opportunity to visit the prized jewel of this system, which happens to be the highest ranked university in the Arab world: King Saud University.

On Monday, we made a visit to the incredibly impressive King Saud University, the largest and one of the most prestigious universities in Saudi Arabia. While we were there, we talked to faculty and students about university life and schooling in Saudi Arabia. King Saud University is an impressive institution. It consists of a women’s college and campus and a men’s college and campus, a reflection of the separation of sexes in Saudi Arabia. There are more than 50,000 undergrad students enrolled in the university, as well as 8,000 graduate students, and the university faculty numbers over 6,000 people. According to the Dean we talked to, the university offers virtually every major, having 17 distinct colleges, 2 hospitals, numerous research centers, and around 130 department chairs. There are also 148 grad school programs and 48 PhD programs as well. Needless to say, King Saud University is huge.

King SaudA map of the university, showing its two campuses, numerous colleges, and huge size.

Major themes which were reinforced throughout our visit were how important the Saudis view education for developing their growing nation and how Saudi university students go through an experience quite similar to American students. As the Kingdom develops, modernizes, and diversifies its economy, it will be in much need of a diverse array of professionals from different backgrounds. Right now, most Saudi graduates specialize in engineering, the sciences, and medicine. According to the faculty we talked to, this is largely due to the current demands of the market. Indeed, the size and competitiveness of the various graduate programs and colleges in the university are determined right now by the needs of the market. However, students and faculty expressed hope and optimism that a greater emphasis will eventually be placed on the humanities as the Kingdom continues to develop. As one of the Deans of the university put it, a fully developed country needs not only engineers and doctors but also lawyers, philosophers, and artists. The Saudi’s talked much about the King Abdullah Scholarship, which has helped send nearly 100,000 Saudi students to the United States to study. They also mentioned that the university has numerous international students, coming from places such as Yemen, Singapore, China, Pakistan, and even Spain, who are helped with Saudi scholarships.

Being a Saudi student is, according to those we talked to, much like being an American student. They specialize in a specific field and major and take classes mostly dedicated to that field. They have to pass final exams, which were actually taking place when we visited the university. Like with us, Saudi students often spend much of their time in the library, looking things up on the computers and studying in private study-spaces. Though most in the huge undergrad population live at home in the city and commute to school, there are many dorms also available on campus. As we drove through the campus, we saw quads, basketball courts, and all of the other things one would expect a university to have to keep their students busy and entertained. In their first year of university, Saudi students are given preparatory courses, which help prepare them for school and which determine their academic interests and strengths. According to their performance in this preparatory year, they are then put into specialized colleges which focus on specific fields. Upon graduation, the students may enter the grad school, but are sometimes also hired by the school to serve as lecturers. According to the Dean we spoke to, this helps ensure that there will always be a supply of teachers at the school, an idea I found very interesting and practical.

The tour of the campus was very nice. It is a massive and beautiful school, far larger than any school I’ve experienced back in the United States. Upon arrival, we spoke to a number of the Deans and higher administrative personnel about the history of the school and some statistics about it. After this, our tour began. We were first shown the massive conference center, a huge auditorium that can fit multiple hundreds of people. It was incredibly impressive, especially considering that the space itself was larger than most academic buildings on my campus! The staff there was preparing for an upcoming conference on the future Riyadh public transit system, so they were busy at work. From the conference center, we were taken to the massive university library and given quite an extensive tour. The library is 6 stories tall, with sections for English books and Arabic books. Like with our own libraries, there were plenty of students busy at work on the computers and in cubicles looking up information and studying for their exams. The staff clearly takes pride in this library, and indeed it seems as though it is one of the most impressive in Saudi Arabia. It is stocked with rows and rows of books, both in English and Arabic, on what seemed like every single subject imaginable. When visiting the library bookstore, where students often buy their class textbooks, we learned that the Saudi government heavily subsidizes their book purchases. Considering that textbooks back in the United States can cost hundreds of dollars, I’m quite jealous of that!

IMG_0671Inside the massive auditorium.

From the library we were taken to the law and political science department, a good choice considering that we are all political science majors and that I was most interested in this part of the Saudi education. We met and talked with the various professors and chair of the department, who were interested to learn about our trip and eager to share their ideas about their country. The discussion, which lasted a good 45 minutes, was fascinating. The professors talked much about how they thought their country was starting to enter the modern world, and that progress, such as equal rights for women and greater political freedoms, were coming fast. They rebutted the criticisms often aimed at the Kingdom that change wasn’t coming fast enough, arguing that change is a difficult and often complicated process and that many impediments, such as a conservative older generation, were keeping a more rapid pace of change from occurring. It was pointed out that the United States, despite its history, had only given women the right to vote 90-some years ago and African Americans true equality fifty years ago.

IMG_0672A look down the main walkway. This connects the various colleges and departments of the male campus together and serves as a central meeting place.

The professors also spoke to their hope that there will be greater cultural communication and cooperation between the Americans and the Saudis in the future. After all, the post-9/11 era is one of general ignorance and misunderstanding between our two people. As mentioned earlier, over 100,000 Saudi students are currently studying in the United States, but very few Americans get the opportunity to travel and study in Saudi Arabia. We all agreed that programs such as the one we are on right now are a key step in building closer ties between our two countries and peoples.

It was very interesting and exciting to go to the university and see how Saudi students experience their education. In many ways that experience is quite similar to our own schooling experience. It made me realize that the differences between our two cultures and ways of life perhaps aren’t that vast, and that an education is just as valuable across the world as it is in the United States. As seen by the size of the university, and the pride the Saudis took in it, higher education is obviously something they feel is important for the continued growth and development of their country.

Constructing the Kingdom: A Journey to Saudi Arabia Pt. 3

A sight as common in Riyadh as the towering skyscrapers and urban sprawl is that of massive construction projects and half finished buildings. Indeed, the skyline is perhaps as full of buildings in the process of being constructed as it is of finished ones.  Everywhere you look, you can see construction crews busy at work building new infrastructure, new malls, new houses, and new skyscrapers. Riyadh is experiencing a massive construction boom, transforming the barren desert into a thriving urban center.

IMG_0660Perhaps no other photo as clearly demonstrates the incredible amount of construction taking place in Riyadh as this one, which shows a huge development project underway near the downtown area.

Saudi Arabia is like some of the other Gulf countries, which are experiencing their own rapid urbanization and construction boom. This is perhaps a testament to the vast amounts of wealth they have to use to spend on such projects and their desire to develop their small, rural communities into major cities with modern infrastructure and massive buildings. As these countries continue to expand in population and economic strength, the size and complexity of their urban centers will undoubtedly continue to expand as well. The sights and sounds of construction here in Riyadh provide ample evidence to this fact.

IMG_0664Most of Riyadh is new, having been transformed into this massive city in only a few decades. This has coincided with a massive growth in population, from around only 150,000 people living in the city in the 1960s to the over 5 million inhabitants it has today. As a result, most of the buildings visible in the Riyadh skyline today are new, and their futuristic architectural designs and modern building materials demonstrate that. Many of these buildings will become commercial centers, reflecting the growing strength of the Saudi economy. Others will become towering residential buildings, needed for Riyadh’s burgeoning population and growing size.

IMG_0663Riyadh is one of Saudi Arabia’s fastest growing cities and its population is expected to grow even further, with some estimates calling for up to 8 million people living in the city in the 2030s. Today, Riyadh’s infrastructure is unable to handle the huge amounts of vehicles needed to transport such a large population. Traffic jams are common, a reality we experienced firsthand when stuck for nearly an hour in traffic as we made our way from the airport to the hotel. To solve this problem, Riyadh will soon begin yet another construction project: a massive public transportation system that will include buses and a new subway. According to its designers and advocates, who we talked to when visiting King Saud University, this new transportation system will significantly ease the amount of traffic on Riyadh’s roads once completed. As someone who has often had to suffer from long commutes and busy traffic, I’m sure that Riyadh’s population will be appreciative of this new infrastructure.

IMG_0673[1]A brochure showing off the planned Riyadh public transportation system.

Saudi Arabia’s building boom makes apparent to anyone who experiences it that the Kingdom is in the process of a major transformation. This land of desert is becoming a land of cities and urban sprawl, showing that Saudi Arabia is quickly entering a new period of modernity. Whether Riyadh’s rapid pace of construction and ambitious building plans will continue cannot be predicted, but it is clear right now that the Saudis’ have high hopes for their capital city. For an observer of the Saudi skyline, the cranes and scaffolding show that the Saudi economy is booming and that the Kingdom is on its way up, both figuratively and literally.


Arriving at the Kingdom: A Journey to Saudi Arabia Pt. 2

As I write this, I am sitting in my hotel room in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh, staring out my window at the bustling city in front of me. With congested highways, towering skyscrapers, and a massive urban sprawl, Riyadh seems like any other city in the world. However, surrounded by a sparsely populated desert, which we drove through after our arrival at the airport, the city also seems out of place. Everything around us was dusty and rocky, as a desert generally is, until the city suddenly appeared on the horizon. The highway on which we were driving quickly filled with cars as we approached, and the emptiness of the land around us was replaced by thick suburbs and commercial districts. In a way, Riyadh seems like a desert oasis, a point of life and activity in an otherwise harsh and lifeless terrain. As the largest city in Saudi Arabia, home to over 5 million people, Riyadh is indeed a point of much life and bustling activity.

Riyadh-skyline2011The beautiful Riyadh skyline

The trip to Saudi Arabia was smooth and comfortable, though long. At a little more than 11 hours, the length of the flight gave me ample opportunity to read, relax, sleep, and watch movies on the plane. However, what I ended up doing the most was staring out the window beside me. The world from above is a remarkable sight, one that we are not always familiar with and one that we should have more opportunities to experience. From the air, the beauty of nature becomes apparent: entire mountain ranges are visible, with their intricate details and erosion patterns apparent; rivers cut and crisscross the terrain; massive forests sprawl across the ground. The mark humanity has made on our planet is also incredibly impressive and easily visible: highway and road systems spread across the land like some massive spider web; urban sprawl stretches out as far as the eye can see; oil platforms dot the ocean as oil tankers come and go.

IMG_0645[1]Mountains crisscross the Arabian Peninsula

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to do some sightseeing while in the air. From my window I saw the nighttime French countryside, the towering Swiss Alps, the beautifully blue Mediterranean dotted with tiny islands, the dusty Egyptian deserts, and the tip of the Sinai Peninsula. As we flew over Arabia, I looked out at what we will be exploring for the next 9 days:  rolling hills, thick deserts, green patches of life which dot the landscape, farm and town compounds, and, in some places, beautifully designed mosques, forts, and markets which undoubtedly have a rich and long history.

IMG_0651[1]The tip of the Sinai Peninsula, seen from my plane.

IMG_0654[1]As we approached the airport, I snapped this photo of a beautiful compound. It appears as though this is some sort of fortress… something I must look into further.

My first impressions of Saudi Arabia are all good. The people are friendly and, as a beginning Arabic speaker, listening to all of the Arabic around me was exciting. The airport where we landed, King Khalid International, was enormous, impressively designed, but easy to navigate. The city of Riyadh, with its beautifully designed skyscrapers blending with suburbs of buildings in the traditional architecture, looked incredibly impressive as we approached it. Admittedly, the weather was hot and the Sun was overwhelming, but there is little else to expect while in the middle of the desert in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, in some ways, the heat helps immerse me in the experience of really being here.

Tomorrow we will be visiting Kind Saud University, the Prince Talal Charity Foundation, and the king Abdul Aziz Historical Center. I am sure these visits will be exciting, the people we will talk to informative, and that I will have much to write about. Already I have more things ideas for blog posts, and I hope to start writing them as soon as possible. However, it is getting late, and I am exhausted from a lack of sleep and jetlag… any more blog posts will have to wait. I look forward to another exciting adventure in the Kingdom tomorrow!

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